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As Deficit Grows, So Too Does Need for a Balanced Budget Amendment

by Brandon Greife / /

“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” So writes former Senator JuddGregg in a Tuesday op-edarguing against conditioning an increase to the debt ceiling on passage of aBalanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the Constitution. It is an interestingchoice of words for Sen. Gregg, given they were originally written by Voltaire,an intellectual anchor of the Era of Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the op-eddoes little to add an enlightened viewpoint to the debate over how best toeliminate our staggering budget deficit.

Sen. Gregg is no stranger to using historical quotes tohammer home his points. What is strange is his stance against the BalancedBudget Amendment. Previously, Sen. Gregg has acknowledged that a BBA is auseful, if not necessary, tool in eradicating Washington’s propensity to spend.For instance in a 1995 speech on the Senate floor, Gregg stated

“James Madison wrote in Federalist PaperNo. 51: “Government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If menwere angels no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern man,neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

But “here in Washington there are few, if any angels,” saidGregg. “We do require a control mechanism to reduce our current fiscal dilemma– a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.”

In the years since Sen. Gregg left office he has apparentlychanged his tune. In his op-ed he calls a Balanced Budget Amendment a “bit of‘conservative’ misdirection,” an “act of gamesmanship,” and an “excuse to avoidthe difficult votes.” His main objection appears to be the length of time itwould take to usher a BBA through the House and the Senate and achieveratification by 37 states. “It takes years, if not decades, to accomplish sucha feat,” he writes.

Such arguments have been made before. And while it is truethat it would take several years to ratify a BBA, the mountain is not as steepas it might first look. Thirty two states have already, at one time or another,called upon Congress to convene a Constitutional Convention for the purposes ofdrafting a BBA. Furthermore, Sen. Gregg fails to mention that had the Senatefollowed the House’s lead in 1995 and passed the BBA, the measure could verywell have been ratified an operating for the better part of a decade by now.

Of course, having voted for the Amendment in 1995, he shouldknow this better than anyone. In fact, he spoke of the “problem” ofratification by saying,

“Let us remember that should we pass thisjoint resolution . . . it would still not be law until it had been ratified by38 states, and that would engender a tremendous, vibrant, and appropriatedebate across this country to the appropriateness of a balanced budgetamendment. That debate would be good. It would be excellent, and it wouldinvolve the people of this Nation in deciding their own future. . .”

That vibrant debate is exactly what America so desperatelyneeds. Instead, it seems clear that Gregg, along with many Republican leaders,want to purely focus on spending cuts. While the desire to reduce our bloatedbudget is laudable, spending cuts are but one piece of the solution needed toensure that America doesn’t find itself right back on the brink of default inthe near future. History shows that Congress simply does not have the willpowerto make, and stick to, the long-term cuts that must be made. Instead, when theeconomy improves, when the politics become unfavorable, or when a so-calledemergency arises, Congress is all too quick to whip out the credit card.

Sen. Gregg has also made this point before. “If the Congresswished to abate that debate and take steam out of the initiative,” he saidin 1994, “the Congress could do so with relative ease by putting in placelegislation which would address the long-term deficit. . . But we have not donethat. We have not done it for 25 years.” 

There is no reason we should expect them to do it now. Thatis why the spending cuts, statutory spending caps, and a Balanced BudgetAmendment, must all be included as part of a comprehensive strategy to achievefiscal sustainability. It is only through this cut, cap, and balance approach,that conservatives can “make the tough, important votes” which Gregg says areneeded to “address our fiscal chaos.” 

Sen. Gregg began with the Voltaire quote, “don’t make theperfect the enemy of the good.” Let me end with a quote from anotherEnlightenment thinker, Thomas Paine, who said “A thing moderately good is notso good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.”As the debt limit debate continues, conservatives must not fall prey to theallure of moderating their principles, they must support a Balanced BudgetAmendment.